J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s curious biopic of the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, isn’t entirely convincing. Half of this expansive picture, which was written by the Oscar-winning Dustin Lance Black (Milk), is too on-the-nose and literal: It’s hammy hokum. When Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Hoover, remarks “What determines a man’s legacy is often what is not seen,” you roll your eyes at the bluntness of the line.
The other half of J. Edgar — the weird half, the one that involves domineering mothers, pearl necklaces and furtive gay affairs — goes further than you might expect. This is Eastwood’s Brokeback Mountain, chased by a healthy serving of J.F.K.- style paranoia and conspiracies (Oliver Stone is going to love this movie.) But because so much of what the film says about Hoover remains speculative and unproven, J. Edgar can’t fully cross all its Ts. There’s a hesitance, for example, in the picture’s depiction of the complicated relationship between Hoover and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who rose through the ranks to become the associate director of the FBI — and, according to the film, participated in a decades-long platonic romance with his boss.
Hammer, best known for his portrayal of the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, adds some much needed levity into this often dour, glum movie. He plays Tolson as a spirited bon vivant who keeps his homosexuality in plain, albeit discreet, sight (during his first job interview at the FBI, he fixes the curtains in the office window.) Once their closeted relationship is underway, Tolson makes no demands on Hoover other than to insist they always have lunch and dinner together. Tolson is the opposite of the repressed, furtive Hoover, and he’s willing to wait for his partner to come around. He loses his patience only when Hoover says he’s planning to propose to the actress Dorothy Lamour: Tolson’s explosive reaction results in one of J. Edgar’s tensest confrontations, dealing head-on with Hoover’s homophobia and self-loathing.
But there, too, the film stops short of taking a stand, and the vagueness is frustrating. J. Edgar places the blame for Hoover’s personality — his paranoia, his constant quest for power and his inability to explore his sexuality — primarily on his mother (Judi Dench), who sounds like she’s giving him an order instead of a compliment when she says “You will rise to be the most powerful man in the country.” Later, when Hoover tries to confide in her (“Mother, I don’t like to dance with women”) she immediately shuts down the conversation: “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.”
That analysis might seem a bit simplistic and convenient. But J. Edgar eloquently argues its case by skipping through Hoover’s entire career, from the founding of the Bureau in 1935 to his death in 1972. Certain key moments are highlighted: Hoover’s frustration when the FBI got its first big case — the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son — but didn’t have the jurisdiction to lead the investigation; his battle against Hollywood’s glamorization of gangsters in the 1930s; and the way Hoover blackmailed famous politicians, leaders and even presidents (including Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy) as a way of protecting his job and doing what he felt was best for the country.
DiCaprio takes a little while to disappear into the role of Hoover: At first, all you notice is his accent and the prosthetics used to age him (DiCaprio’s makeup is fine, but Hammer’s is horrifically bad). But DiCaprio’s usual pluck and confidence have an unexpected effect on Hoover: The actor helps you get past Hoover’s coarseness and bluster, focusing instead on the grand tragedy of his life. Like Anthony Hopkins did in Nixon, DiCaprio rescues a key figure in American politics from his reductive boogeyman reputation: Hoover may still be a monster, but in J. Edgar, he’s unfailingly human, too.
J. Edgar hop scotches back and forth through more than five decades of American history, and Eastwood savors small incidents that other filmmakers might have ignored (such as Hoover’s photo-op with Shirley Temple at the lobby of a Times Square movie theater in Manhattan). The film takes its time, as Eastwood tends to do, but the accumulation of detail over the years is necessary in order to bring this elusive figure to life (as his unflaggingly faithful secretary, Naomi Watts does a lot with a largely superfluous role; her loyalty to Hoover, even after his death, is another reminder that he was also loved.)
J. Edgar doesn’t let Hoover off the hook: The movie pulls off a nice reversal near the end by exposing him to be a most unreliable narrator, making you question much of what you’ve just seen. But there, too, the intent is not to demonize. J. Edgar doesn’t pardon any of Hoover’s transgressions or abuses — he remains, on one level, a schoolyard bully — but the movie also argues that Hoover wasn’t merely drunk with power: He was also terrified of disappointing people.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas, Dermot Mulroney.
Director: Clint Eastwood.
Screenwriter: Dustin Lance Black.
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 137 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday Nov. 11 at area theaters.